As part of the startup Interview series, we are going to interview Mrs. Karolina Majewska from AILIS Care, a MedTech startup from Poland, offering an AI-driven breast cancer prediction technology.
Karolina, thanks for taking the time to catch up with us. Can you briefly outline the company’s story, what is AILIS Care‘s key goal? Who are the founders and how it all became what it is today?
We have been working on the AILIS early breast cancer detection system for the last 6 years. The idea was created in response to the huge problem of breast cancer and the impact that this disease has on societies and modern diagnostics. Personal stories that touched Michał (our CEO), people around him, and people involved in AILIS made us think about how to respond to that problem. Once the idea appeared in his mind right people started to appear in his life, including the Business Angel who supported this project financially and made it happen.
Once we got deeper into the topic and realized that more than 2.3 million women worldwide suffer from breast cancer annually we started a long process of analyzes and searching for solutions that would be groundbreaking in this area.
What kind of products and services does your company offer?
AILIS helps women with the early detection of breast cancer, which is one of the major health problems within women in the world. It provides comprehensive services in the field of breast care and breast monitoring. We want not only to detect but also to protect women against the development of breast cancer. AILIS is the first device that guarantees full comfort and privacy for a woman during the examination. No pressure or compression of the breasts, contact-free, without the presence of the personnel during the examination, service in a nice and pleasant atmosphere.
To give you a hint of what we do, we have applied Parametric Dynamic Imaging (PDI) technology which has a great potential for detecting anomalies at a very early stage of neoplastic changes. It can be compared to magnetic resonance. Similarly to that, in our method, a specific flow of thermal energy is forced inside the tissue with the use of an external source of stimulation. After switching it off the tissues return to their original state. The dynamics of the tissue return to its energy balance is described by parametric functions, and the determined parameters will vary depending on the type of tissue and its natural, internal energy activity and structure. This allows distinguishing normal tissue from neoplastic.
To summarize our technology provides women that have dense breasts with access to effective and comfortable examinations for early signs of breast cancer and comprehensive breast health monitoring.
What’s the latest progress in the project, and what are you focusing on right now?
There are a lot of challenges every day and every day we make small progress towards the final goal. Recently we have finalized internal tests of our prototype device. We have performed breast screenings for women with dense types of breasts, who volunteered to go through our examination. We screened circa 220 women, including the one with already diagnosed breast cancer. After each examination, all the women were asked to provide us with feedback from their experience. That allows us not only to gather valuable information but also allowed us to check our methodology and assumptions we had. I do not want to reveal everything, but we have obtained great sensitivity and specificity parameters comparable and in instances even higher than those available in the devices present on the market today. Having that experience, we have decided to move to the next stage and start to work on the final version of the AILIS device (finalization is planned early next year). Once finalized we will conduct full medical trial tests.
What pain of your customers are you helping solve? What is your company’s offering and what kind of customers and partners are you looking for?
When you look at the healthcare sector you can see that cancer itself became a civilization disease. It affects all aspects of our lives. According to the latest WHO data, breast cancer is the most common malignant neoplasm in the world. It affects more and more women who are young and professionally active. What should be realized is that if detected and treated in the early stages, it can be completely curable, while when the tumor develops to stage IV, the survival rate drops to only 22%. So early diagnosis is a key part of the fight against breast cancer.
It is forecasted that by 2040 there will be 27.5 million new cancers worldwide, an increase of 61.7% over 2018, with breast cancer being the most common cancer. In the European Union, breast cancer is diagnosed every 2.5 minutes and a woman dies every 7.5 minutes. The situation is even more dramatic in Asia, where most cases are diagnosed, and their accumulation occurs within young women aged between 45-50.
The technology developed by AILIS addresses this problem. We want to provide solutions for early breast cancer detection, providing a great customer experience at the same time. From the technical-analysis side, AILIS uses artificial intelligence (AI) neural networks, telemedicine solutions, and POD (Parametric Dynamic Imaging) to monitor breast health.
Our solution is dedicated to all the women with dense types of breasts who are aware of how important it is to have regular check-ups. It is estimated that 43% of women aged 40-74 worldwide have dense breasts, which due to their compact structure, constitute the greatest diagnostic challenge. This problem is particularly important in Asia, whereas many as 70% of women have breasts with dense tissue.
And when it comes to our partners, we pay careful attention to whom we cooperate. It is of great importance for us that our partners share a very similar range of values.
What differentiates AILIS Care from its competitors?
We have few major competitive advantages. Having said that we have to look on the breast cancer topic from different angles.
Currently used technologies to diagnose breast cancer like mammography or ultrasound, require a radiologist to analyze each test result. It should be noted that only 5 out of 1000 women will be diagnosed with cancer. So for 995 test results, the radiologist’s time is consumed to conclude that the result is negative. In our solution, the radiologist will only analyze cases where there is a high probability of cancer, which constitutes around 5-10% of cases. All the cases will be first examined by AI, and AI will indicate which tests should be subject to further review by the radiologist. This allows for a significant cost reduction of the examination. The current cost of one breast cancer detection, taking into account only the radiologist’s working time, is circa USD 1,5k, and in the case of AILIS, this is reduced to USD 6.
Another very important aspect that gives us a competitive advantage, is the fact that breast screening will take place always assuring the same conditions, which is very important to detect any changes and have comparable data. Current models (mammography or ultrasound) are highly dependent on the radiologist’s diligence. Conditions like temperature, or the trajectory of the device which screens the breast cannot be repeated for consecutive screenings for certain women. Even after the screening, there is a always risk involved of a human mistake, especially when the radiologist must analyze tons of results. In AILIS we will always reperform the same conditions. The same position and temperature for each screening will be assured for each woman. Thanks to that we will maintain repetitive conditions and environment which allows AI to identify even small signs of changes.
The last aspect is the time to obtain the test result, which in the case of mammography is up to 8 weeks, whereas AILIS will deliver the result within 10 minutes, and in case of irregularities, further examination will be performed.
Do you use AI technology in your product? How does it work for you?
Yes, in AILIS AI technology is widely used. Breast examination is performed using very precise AI without the participation of the medical personnel. Only patients with a positive result are automatically referred to a specialist who will plan further procedures.
And in here we address another problem – shortage of specialists like radiologists. This is especially important due to the difficult access to specialists. There are alarming shortages of radiologists all over the world, which contributes to significant delays in obtaining a diagnosis or even the inability to undergo the necessary diagnostics. In addition, deficiencies in standard techniques have resulted in an increase in false positives and biopsies, further increasing healthcare costs.
What is your business model and how are you planning to get early customers onboard? Have you already raised money for your operations and building the platform?
It is a good question indeed. We do observe a market and look for the best solution that will work for us and our customers. We are currently a one-stop shop, meaning we take full care of the women, starting from screening service through further monitoring and examination. But we provide not only a screening service but also hardware (device) and a network of own radiologists who are available to consult the results if needed and recommend further steps. Our current model assumes the development of our own centers in Europe, establishing the brand and operations, assuring high-quality service. Once the operating model is in place we would like to expand abroad with strategic investors and develop a further network through e.g. franchise.
What milestones have you had in fundraising and where are you now?
Recently our project was appreciated by Polish National Centre for Research and Development (NCBiR) who granted us a subsidy amounting to PLN 5m. In addition, since the beginning, we are supported by Business Angel who believed in us and our idea in the early stages of development. Thanks to his support we were able to build first prototype and proof our concept. What is more, further development is in our DNA, and scaling the business will be the next steps. The solution we offer and the problem we are solving is a worldwide one. We feel even obliged to go outside of Poland and help women around the world. Currently, as I mentioned we will assemble the final version of the device which will be subject to clinical trials. After the trials are finalized, the natural step will be the commercialization of our system. In the first steps in Poland as we are obliged to do so by NCBiR, however simultaneously we will search for partners in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, hence we are open to cooperation with the right partner who wants to have this journey with us. At the moment we have secured financing for the next steps, however, we are aware that commercialization is a huge project and would require further investments, hence we are open for discussion with potential investors.
What was it like growing your team? What are the challenges and surprises you encountered? What tips do you have for building a solid team?
Building a team of people with the necessary competencies and unique personalities took few years, but it resulted in the creation of AILIS. Our team includes scientists from the Gdańsk University of Technology, specialists in Biomedical Engineering, professors of AI, we work with an oncologist with 20 years of experience in the field of breast cancer from the Medical University of Gdańsk. We have a brand strategist, a manager from the investment fund, lawyers, patent attorney, engineers, programmers, and specialists in data security and market regulations. The team grows with the development of the company.
Every single person is an individual which requires an individual approach. You need to give space for everyone and be always there for them. Even though everyone is different we share similar values which is important for us, thanks to that we have the same goals and can rely on each other. Each team knows exactly what should be done. Tasks are coordinated and teams have milestones to reach.
What are your company’s plans for the future, your major dream in 2021?
Very simple, finalize production version of AILIS device. We already proved our prototype, now we want to build the device that will pass certifications required by federations in Europe, the USA, and China.
What do you think about the business climate in Poland and in the EU in general?
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has made dramatic progress moving from a centrally planned to a market-oriented economy. Trade liberalization, economic restructuring, privatization, capital inflow, and the gradual adaptation of legal and administrative standards to market-oriented practices have improved economic structures dramatically.
According to the survey respondents of the 12th edition of the “Investment Climate” carried out by PAIH (Polish Investment and Trade Agency), Grant Thornton, and HSBC, Poland is one of the most attractive places on the map of Europe to invest. Many major corporations that are already present in the Polish market are considering the location of their investments in our market. The report shows that for the third year in a row, the investment climate in Poland was rated at 3.7 points out of 5 possible, and as many as 65% of respondents described the conditions for running a business in our country as at least good. The study also shows that European and Asian investors gave the highest marks. 94 percent of foreign investors are glad they have invested in Poland and would do it again.
I think what really matters for investors is the size of the internal market and economic stability. Of course, there are areas that require further improvements such as volatility and ambiguity of regulations, low efficiency of the economic judiciary, and tax bureaucracy, however, with an improving business environment, Poland integrated well into regional value chains. The well-diversified Polish economy is among Europe’s least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can observe the high activity of international companies choosing our country to implement more and more technologically complex processes, which confirms the attractive investment climate that prevails in Poland and we would like to benefit from that.
To summarize our interview I would like to ask your opinion about the future of the HealthTech industry, especially considering the impact of pandemics and all this economic turbulence.
The pandemic has definitely accelerated the development of the MedTech industry. According to the PFR Ventures (Polish Development Fund) report, every fourth company in which VC funds invested in 2020 conducted activities in the field of healthcare. This trend has not slowed down, and new MedTech startups continue to appear on the market. It refers not only to applications-related startups like e.g. remote diagnosis, but there is a space for large hardware and diagnosis solutions, such as AILIS.
We are living in interesting times, let’s see what happens 😊.